J asks: Has the emergence of social media – text, images, and video, made the internet more like passive entertainment or has it enabled more people to actively interact?
Wow, a question after my own heart. As I’ve written a couple of times, I’m a child of the Internet – I first encountered it when I was about 7, fell in love with the idea of all sorts of online communities and forums about every imaginable topic, wanted to have my own website, and then my own blog, and then went on to witness and participate in social media. And I have some feelings about how the internet has developed from what it was then to what it is now.
The short answer to the question has to be “both”. The internet has progressively become something easier to participate in. Initially, if you even wanted to get involved, you were going to have to setup all the hardware and then all the software, figure out your modem settings, and then your IP address and whatnot. Then you’d have to figure out web hosting, make your own website or forum, and getting involved involved a lot of work. So everybody who was involved was necessarily very active.
As more and more people came online though, it became easier than ever to get involved. After a while it became easier to start blogs, so there were more people who casually started blogs. And now it’s even easier to post facebook statuses (you don’t need to build an audience through engagement, because your social ties are brought into the picture), to take pictures and videos. And there’s so much content now being produced (I think there are like several days worth of video uploaded to youtube every second) that it’s also easier than ever to be a passive observer.
Let’s recap again– there’s so much content that it’s easy to be a passive observer, but it’s also so easy to produce content that it’s easy to be an active participant. And I think everyone is by default a passive observer of the goings-on around them at (almost) all times, usually processing that information internally somehow, and sometimes that stuff comes out– either through deliberate creative acts, or sometimes just inadvertently in conversation or even on a comments section of some Facebook page, or on reddit. (There’s a Ray Bradbury quote about how, if you ask an average man the right question, he turns into a poet.)
One interesting thing, I suppose, is that even in its “passive entertainment” state, the internet is still more interactive and variable than TV and radio used to be. You get to choose what pages you want to Like on Facebook, or what subreddits you subscribe to, so you get to “express yourself”, to yourself, in the way you curate your information feeds.
That said, I don’t know if the internet inspires people to get more active in their engagement with media. It’s easy to find data that confirms your hunch either way– it’s easy to find people who are more engaged than ever, and it’s easy to find people who are more disengaged than ever (probably because of information overload– there’s so much of it, and you can never get to all of it, and you can’t comment on everything, you can’t have an informed opinion on everything…). At the same time there are entire new media organizations being built from scratch, and ordinary people becoming influential and significant (I hate the phrase ‘thought leader’, but i suppose we can use that here for now.)
What’s interesting about the “data can confirm your hunch either way” scenario is– first, it could be true that there’s a global answer. That if you mapped out all the users of the internet, you might find that most people are becoming more passive than before, and that the pool of engaged individuals is small. I think that’s pretty unlikely– there’s just so much stuff being created that it seems fair to assume that there’s more people creating it than ever before. People are literally leaving home to go to places where famous youtubers and Vine-rs live, so they can collaborate with one another. The social media star is the new rock star.
But second, the global answer might not actually be globally relevant. By that I mean– it could be that more people are being active participants than ever (my personal impression), but that might not be your experience. Your experience might be that everyone around you is being ridiculously bleary-eyed in their passive consumption. And it’s definitely true that the internet is more addictive and engaging than any previous type of media, so if a person is somehow biased or compelled to be a passive consumer, they’re “worse” off with the Internet– or rather they’d be spending more time and energy passively consuming than before.
I try to be hopeful and idealistic. I’d like to believe that not only does active participation inspire and beget more active participation, but that with good design, the right nudges and cues, we can encourage the normally passive to get involved, too. And yes, I’m not hesitant to make value judgements here– I think there’s…
- good active participation (thoughtful, open, encouraging, challenging)
- bad active participation (nasty, spiteful, trolling, hate speech, abuse)
- neutral passive consumption
- bad passive consumption (doesn’t affect others, but it’s suboptimal for the individual consumer)
We’d want to encourage 1, and discourage 2 and 4. 3 is a natural thing to be expected; nobody can be expected to be actively participating in everything all the time– and the people who do do that usually tend to be from category 2. I think these are things worth doing, because… it’s like the tragedy of the commons in the realm of civic participation, right? If everyone was decently informed and voted in every election, then we’d have better political outcomes. Similarly, if everyone was decently informed and decently engaged, then we’d improve our thinking, achieve our goals better, blah blah blah.
But it’s an uphill battle, because our biology and culture both seem to be working against us on this. Hopefully we see substantial progress in our lifetimes.
A friend asked, why do you ask people to ask you questions, why not just write about stuff which you cared about?
My immediate short answer was, because I’ve written so much introspectively for so long tht I’ve kinda lapped myself, or jumped the shark, or basically overwhelmed myself with so much data about myself that I’m no longer sure of what I care about. So I need some cues and stimuli.
But also more simplistically, and perhaps more truly, the fact is that I like the idea of having something for someone. I like the idea of having a gift to give to a specific person, saying here, this is for you. I like the idea that there’s someone who has a bit of anticipation or expectation, and I get to fulfill it. I suppose this is one of those fundamental human drives thing, a social impulse. I can’t sit and write for some abstract audience. When I look back at my body of work, I realize a lot of my favorite stuff has been written in response to things. Sometimes it’s after I watch a movie or after I read a book. Sometimes it’s after a conversation with a friend.
Very rarely can I wake up in the morning with a completely clear mind and go “ahh, today I feel like writing about a thing for its own sake!” I mean, I do have a long ass list of things that I’d like to write about, and I suppose I could meditate for a while and look at that list and eventually feel like I ought to write something or another. I think that’s one way of doing it, and I’d like to do more of that, but it would require me to get into a sort of ritual state. Which I should really try out more proper-ly.
But otherwise, and this is most of the time, I write in response to things. I already have a bunch of things in my mind that are half-prepped and ready to go about any particular thing, but I don’t always realize it until I encounter the trigger. And when that happens it all coalesces and synthesizes and comes out, and that’s an incredibly cathartic experience, like emptying a full bladder that you never realized was full to begin with– all you did was experience a constant sense of discomfort and unease, but you don’t quite know about what.
In related news– part of my goal of writing 1,000,000 words was to become more certain of myself, to understand my voice better, to get more comfortable with words, to clearly establish myself in my own mind as a writer. Not a wannabe writer or a writer hopeful, a WRITER. And I think once you’ve written 500,000 words of your own volition for your own reasons, you’re kinda qualified. You’ve written more than the Lord of the Rings. You’re a writer. You have some taste. You have some skill. It’s bound to have happened. That’s me, woo hoo.
But now I have another 430,000 words to go, and I don’t want to do more of the same thing. Now I want to start thinking about what’s going to happen when I cross the finish line. And a big part of that is– I want to re-enter the world. I’ve been writing in isolation so far, but I want to start writing for other people again. The isolation was by design at first– I was getting bothered by how my thinking was so BLINDLY reactionary. I would just be writing angry things in response to the news, because I knew it would give me reactions, and I enjoyed getting reactions. By going into isolation I have managed, I hope, to cultivate a sort of dispassionate distance from whatever it is that I’m working on. I can allow myself the time and space to figure out what really needs to be said, rather than what is easy and what would get knee-jerk reactions. I don’t want to get knee-jerk reactions anymore, I want to challenge and inspire people to think better, think harder, to expand their imaginations.
So I have to start actively engaging people more, right now, within the context of this project. My first baby step in that direction is to start writing for other people instead of writing for myself. And I do that by asking for questions. I don’t know if I’m cut out to write some sort of advice column, and I don’t think I really want to do that. Though I wouldn’t say no, either. I’d give it a shot. Who knows? All I do know is that I’m tired of operating entirely within my own mind, psychoanalyzing my own interests and motivations, and really, getting to a point where I kick up a dust and then realize that I can’t see.
I’m not going to stop reflecting altogether– in fact I do think that I’m not doing enough of it, but I need to do that in a different way. I need to experiment with different configurations. So I’m going to take the reflections mostly offline (i’ll share roundups and summaries and tidied up insights, maybe, or if there are any breakthroughs or ‘epiphanies’). And maybe I’ll spend a couple of hundred vomits just writing responses to whatever people give me. That should be fun. I wrote several hundred thousand words for myself, it would be fun to write several hundred thousand more for my friends. And beyond that I anticipate writing “serious” essays, fiction, novels. And again I have a nagging feeling that the best way to do that will be to write for friends. I think I’m wired that way. I think all I’ve ever wanted is to experience intimacy and oneness with people that I care about, and I think I often project that intellectually and think that connecting with millions would be better than connecting with a few, or even one.
But I’ve come to learn that if something’s going to mean something to a lot of people, it first has to mean something to at least one other person. So that’s why I’m doing this.
A friend asked, “tell me a vivid childhood memory”.
I have a bunch of memories, I think (duh, doesn’t everyone), but I wonder which is so interesting that I’d be able to write a thousand words about it without having to think too deeply about it. I don’t think it would be from my early childhood, because those memories were fairly simple and not all that interesting. There’s also some complicated stuff involving other people, and I don’t want to have to deal with that right now. So I have to pick a memory that’s fairly straightforward, and yet something I find compelling anyway. (It’s interesting at this point to realize that there ARE memories of things that I have never written about and should probably write about for myself for my own sake. Thanks for asking the question, N.)
Okay, what sort of memory– a happy memory? Sad memory? Wistful? Excited? Music? Girls? School? I think I’ve written too much about school already. And cigarettes, I’ve written a bunch about that. I guess I could write about my mother. Ma. Mum. Amma.
I don’t know how to talk about my relationship with my parents. Part of it is the fact that they’re still alive, and there’s a chance that they’d read anything that I write, especially if it’s something about them. I think I’ve had a pretty good childhood and a pretty good relationship with my parents, but still, choosing to write something about a living person that’s anything less than perfectly flattering is always something that’s a little scary to do, because you don’t know how they’re going to receive it.
My parents were never really super-hands-on type parents, and I think that’s common for a lot of Singaporeans. “Family time” as a family was never a huge deal for us because we all lived in the same home, there was a family business, so people were almost always at home all the time. Dad would have to head out but he’d be back home for lunch, and sometimes here and there in between. So we never really needed any particular strong rituals, like family lunch or family dinner. We’d do those things for birthdays and deepavali and stuff like that. But for the most part we just coexisted. There was a steady hum to all of it. Dad would typically be watching the news, or reading newspapers, smoking his cigarettes. Mum would typically be in the office doing paperwork. Every so often there would be calls on the office phone.
My mum would often have errands to run– she’d have to go to the bank, or go to the post office, and she’d go to the temple every week– and she’d bring me along. I guess those are some vivid memories. We’d take the bus together. I didn’t have a smartphone at the time, so I think I’d often be reading a book. I don’t remember if we talked much. I’m sure we did, it would’ve been weird if it was totally silent. But I don’t really remember the details of our conversations. We’d often go to McDonald’s afterwards– she was a fan of pineapple pies and sweet and sour sauce. After we were done at the Post Office, she’d typically head off to buy groceries or something and leave me to read books in Popular book store. I enjoyed that very much.
My dad would drive me around in his rickety old pickup truck, always smoking, tamil radio on. It would rumble and the brakes would be kinda crappy. Again, as with mum, I don’t really remember our conversations, though it would still be weird if we didn’t talk much. I guess he’d ask me about school, tell me to study hard, stuff like that. He drove me to school every morning from P4 till halfway through Sec 1. I guess I’d pick that for my most vivid memory. I never really liked or appreciated that he did that while he was doing it– as a kid I much preferred the idea of being independent, of taking the bus to school myself, maybe meeting friends along the way, that sort of thing. His logic was– he was being a good dad, sacrificing some of his sleep so his son could get as much sleep as possible and get to school and not have to worry about anything except studying. At the time I felt it was maybe a bit passive-aggressive– like, he’s sacrificing so much for me, why aren’t I doing better in school? But as the years go by, I’ve learnt to also see it as a way of showing love.
That was a common theme in my parents’ parenting doctrine– to remove as much stress and responsibility from my life so that I’d never have to worry about anything except school. I won’t be doing the same as a parent if I have kids, but I do appreciate what they were trying to do. I was thinking earlier about how my dad got married and had 2 kids by the time he was my age– 3 next year. I got married fairly young too– not as young as he did, but I’m also married– but I can’t imagine having kids yet. I suppose we live in different times with different expectations. It’s interesting how different we are. I wonder what it would be like to be friends with my father as a young man- that is, if I could meet him now as a 26 year old father of two. Would I enjoy his company? I hope I would, but I’m not all that sure. But maybe that’s just a function of the folks I hang out with today, and that is a sort of privilege. Maybe he’d have been a totally different man if he were my age today. That’s a definitely, not a maybe.
I don’t know how to think about my childhood anymore. It seems like my ideas and memories of it have changed over the years while I wasn’t looking. And it feels like it might be a good idea to find some time and space to sit down and process all of it. Or is that a wild fantasy, and do we never fully process all of anything?
A friend asked, if you ever got a tattoo, what would it be?
I’m still not 100% sure about my own relationship with the idea of tattoos. I think I like them, and I think I’ve wanted them. When I was younger I wanted stuff that was really clever, meaningful, compelling. At some point when I was playing in a band, I had this idea for a concept album called Faeries and Gargoyles, which was basically a sort of yin/yang idea, hot and cold, soft and hard, and so on. And I thought it would be cool to have a faerie (I like that spelling, feels more ethereal and less Disney) on one arm and a Gargoyle on the other. But I never really developed that idea very much.
At some point I thought I’d like to get things that I’d like to remind myself of. I liked the idea of having “think.” on one wrist and “transcend.” on the other. One of my rules for getting tattoos is– if I’m gonna get them, I gotta still want them a year or two years later. They got to endure the test of time. The thing is, when I have something on my mind that long, I eventually seem to internalize it– and then I don’t need it anymore, because it’s inside my mind.
There are a couple of other things that are on my mind now about what sort of tattoos I’d get, if any. A couple of considerations.
One is that it has to be tasteful and endure the test of time in a greater sense. By that I mean… if they find my body a couple of thousand years from now, I’d like it to make sense. The math/science geek in me is amused by the idea of having tattoos with scientific ideas– something that communicates to my future finders that I appreciated universal things. A scale model of the solar system, maybe, if it could fit on the human body? I don’t think it could. But something in that spirit. I don’t mean like “e=mc^2” – but more like, maybe a drawing that has the fibonacci sequence embedded in it. I think that would be super cool.
I also have a thing for fractal systems and complexity. As I mentioned in an earlier vomit– I have these recurring dreams sometimes where I’m a sort of energy-being contained within myself, bursting out, and there are certain visual motifs in those ideas. It’s very… psychadelic. One way I imagine it is– like a massive, full-body tattoo, starting in the center of the chest and expanding outwards towards the hands and legs and neck. But it wouldn’t be “FULL” body in the sense that it would cover every single bit of skin– rather it would have to make good use of empty space and be coherent with the human form. Something like a giant tree of sorts. Or a giant city. Imagine the body as a landscape, and the chest is the city center– and you have long roads going out. And imagine if this map was to represent you and your energies and your interests.
One thing I like about Maori tattoos– the really good ones– is how they follow the bone structure of whoever is being tattooed. That’s the difference (in my imperfect assessment) between a good tattoo and a shitty tribal cut-and-paste job. The really good ones remind me of what someone said about Paul McCartney’s basslines– they somehow manage to add to the rest of the song, give you something beautiful to pay attention to, and yet it accentuates what is good about the song– it doesn’t try to overwhelm. It almost seems like the bassline was already there within the song, just waiting to come out. I believe in that. I think that is the case in all of art. There are masterpieces hidden in plain sight.
I also really like the idea of having an overarching theme– so that any new tattoo can “join the family” and be part of a coherent body of work, and all of them can sort of reference each other, work together, play with one another some how.
Yeah, it’s a kinda really ambitious project to even begin thinking about. I suppose the thing would be just to get started. What do I want tattoos to do for me, anyway? I want them to make me feel stronger and more powerful. I want them to remind me of ideals and principles. I want them to challenge and provoke me. Every time I look at them in the mirror or see them on my arms I’d want to feel compelled, renewed. That’s a hell of a lot to expect from a bunch of ink that you hammer into your skin. So I guess that’s why I haven’t gotten any tattoos yet.
Maybe I should also just answer the question in a simple and straightforward way. What would be a simple thing I could get that I’d really like? I’d like something thin and minimalist that spans a lot of the body. I find myself giggling at the idea of constellation-y lines that span the whole body but are very subtle and almost unnoticable. I like the idea of these constellation lines following the physiology of the body, kind of like the acupuncture doll you see in some old chinese acupuncture shops. I wouldn’t want it to be too tight and rigid, I’d want it to be slightly jackson-pollocky.
Goddamnit, I am utterly incapable of giving a straight answer to a question. If I could get a free high quality tattoo done right now, what would I get? I’d get something like this: http://www.tattooers.net/kostek-stekkos/arm-dotwork-line-tattoo/7520/. I’d give the guy a bunch of pictures of things that I like– fractals and galaxies and such. I’d have rivers and roads running down my body, expanding outwards from my chest. I’d probably do one arm first as a start. And then maybe I’d turn to cartography and map out little towns and cities that represent landmarks in my life.
Yeah, I like that idea. And I guess that’s a sort of metaphor or symbol for what I’m trying to do with these word vomits, or with writing in general.
I wanted to write about “tripping through time”. I was telling another friend about this essay that I’ve been wanting to write– I’ve told maybe 3 or 4 about this, and I figure that after a while it’s easier to just write out what the essay is supposed to be rather than keep talking to people about the essay I’d maybe-someday want to write. I know from experience that sometimes writing about what you want to write is the best way to get started on writing the actual thing that you want to write.
Where do I start? I’d like to have some sort of clever introduction, but really the first thought that comes to my mind is Facebook, and what a trippy experience that is. The word “trip” originally meant to ‘tread or step lightly and nimbly”, and grew to mean a short journey or voyage – and later on it even meant ‘a psychadelic drug experience’. I mean “trippy” in the last two senses– that it gives you a sort pf psychadelic experience. Something is trippy if it takes you on a journey or voyage, internally, sometimes instantaneously by moving the frame, giving you a new context, a new point of view. Sometimes many different points of view all at once.
That’s what Facebook is like. It was originally meant to be a sort of massive address book, but it’s become so much more than just that. It’s become an endless stream of photo albums and snippets of thoughts and memories, all splayed out together. You can click on a person’s profile picture and scroll through their past– often a single tap to the left shows you a picture of them from a full decade ago. That’s trippy– to travel a decade in a second.
I find it interesting to read my old messages and statuses and look at my old pictures. I’ve often felt the compulsion to just sit down and go through all of my history chronologically, to re-experience my younger days with a more neutral, distanced, dispassionate view, to contextualize all of the mess and chaos through the lens of an older, more experienced, more world-weary me. The past on Facebook isn’t a remembered past– memories are fallible and constantly edited and modified to fit our present narratives. It’s a recorded past, and it often yields inconvenient bits that DON’T fit the convenient narratives. Things that we said we wanted to do.
Just today, Facebook’s On This Day feature showed me a friend sharing a video from 3 years ago of how she’d like to be proposed to, and her boyfriend commented “shit, so much pressure” and got 6 Likes for it. A couple of weeks ago, her latest boyfriend proposed to her, and she’s engaged now.
But Facebook doesn’t allow those old inconvenient memories to decay or fade out– they’re every bit as bright and clear today as they were when they first happened. Hardly anybody in the history of mankind has had to live with that sort of high-fidelity recording of their past selves– except maybe highly public figures like Presidents and Kings.
I don’t think Facebook was prepared for this. I don’t think any of us were prepared for this. We thought we were just adding people to our superpowered address book– even adding acquaintances like that girl from the class next door in college that you never spoke more than a few words to. And now you get a constant stream of updates about her life, and you’ll get to see her wedding photos, watch her children grow up, hear about her political views– all sorts of things nobody ever had to contend with in the past.
It’s also really interesting to look at the pasts of older people, and see what they were like when they were younger than we are today. I find that really trippy. I can go on Facebook and look at pictures of my older colleagues from 8 or 9 years ago, and get a sense of what they might’ve been like when they were even younger than me. I get to see comments and messages from people I’m no longer friends with, people who I miss– people who continue to occupy parts of my mind not because of any specific intent on my part, but because of the nature of the medium that we’re all embedded in.
Before mobile phones became a thing, there was a very clear distinction between “online” and “offline”. You went on the Internet to go and hang out with people in cyberspace, the space that is no space, a realm of ideas and representations. The online world has since begun colonizing the offline world– software is eating the world. Tonnes of things that we see in meatspace have representations in the digital ether, so the phrase “cyberspace” seems awfully irrelevant.
Cyberspace is no longer somewhere we go to, away from the world on clunky desktop computers with big CRT monitors and dialup. We’re all on the Information Superhighway, but we’re not using it to GO anywhere– it used to be presumed that it would be like a great library, and we’d be able to access any content that we wanted.
That dream has been realized. But even the dreamers hadn’t foreseen that we’d want to contribute, we’d want to send and not just receive. We’d end up writing and making videos and communicating with one another, and relationships would be built and destroyed, people would find spouses, find friendships, stalk one another, kill and murder one another, that regimes would be toppled, justice would be sought.
The Information Highway has led us not to either salvation or damnation, but to ourselves.
When I think about it, I realize that everything everyone is projecting about VR and AR must be necessarily flawed and incomplete. We have no idea how these technologies are going to be used. People are going to be artistic and talented and improvise and do all kinds of crazy shit. It’s going to redefine, probably radically, our relationship with ourselves, our own thoughts, our own minds.
It’s a hell of a trip.
I sometimes have this dream where I’m possessed by some sort of Demon-God. “Possessed” is a bit of a loaded word– I just feel overcome, taken over. Like there’s something within me that’s awake, and the rest of the time I’m really just sleepwalking through life.
This Demon-God is a vast, massive being beyond anything I can imagine. He’s strong, sexy, sensual, seductive. He’s confident, radiant, brimming, overflowing. Present, centered. In a way, he’s everything that I want to be. He’s a sort of representation of my best self, or my full self. And he speaks to me in my head in incredibly grand terms. He finds my daily life trivial, humorous and small– like I’m something incredibly powerful amusing itself by pretending to be weak and tiny. He finds my questions silly.
These dreams tell me that I have something greater than myself within me that’s just begging and yearning to be set free, to be let out, to be unleashed, to be enacted. And I know in my heart of hearts that that is what I must do with my life. I don’t have anything specific to say about that – there are no specific plans. He’s too big for plans, he doesn’t care. He finds the human limitations of plans and projects to be puny and pathetic.
But there’s the rub. If I am to enact the Demon-God into existence, I have to handle the plans and project management. And I don’t have a lot of experience doing that. In fact I have a lot of experience being bad at that and being miserable at being bad at that. It’s kinda traumatic and upsetting for me. But sitting around whining about it turns off the Demon-God. He finds it pathetic, uninteresting.
I realize now that this has a lot of parallels with what I’ve read about re: creativity and “genius”. Elizabeth Gilbert talked about it. Stephen Pressfield wrote about it. Tor Norretranders wrote about it. My job as custodian of the Demon-God is to do all the boring paperwork and administration and project management so that he can just show up and unleash his insights and perspective and majesty.
Well, that’s settled, then. There are at least two parts to me (in practice probably infinite, on a continuum). Part of my progress and development as a writer requires me to be less anxious and worried about whether or not divine inspiration is going to show up. That’s not my responsibility. I can’t control that. So I need to let go of that. Instead I just need to show up every day, day after tday, writing, grinding, putting in the work. Professional writers who do this for a living know this, and have known this for hundreds of years. So if I’m going to be truly serious– and I want to be– then I can’t just be running this project lackadaisically. My god, man, there’s no time to waste! I have to get cracking, get moving, be publishing every day!
I suppose that’s one of the big dichotomies or conflicts that I will be carrying with me for the rest of my life, and only really know how I feel about it right before I die, if I have that luxury. Should I relax, stop and smell the flowers, appreciate the joy and beauty of idleness? Or should I be industrious, racing against time? Is there really some sort of balanced path between the two? I think people are naturally predisposed to be more of one or the other, I think circumstances influences that, and I think we can also influence it to some degree with conditioning and reinforcement.
So the question is what do I reinforce? There’s a certain Pascal’s Wager element to this here. There are two options, so there are four before and after scenario. Idle then Industrious, Idle throughout, Industrious then Idle, Industrious throughout. I was mostly idle when I was younger. And I think I’m mostly idle by disposition. I could neve be industrious throughout. I wasn’t industrious before, so that wasn’t an option. If I am to hedge my bets in life, which I think is a rational thing to do, it makes sense for me to at least spend some time right now being as industrious as I possibly can. I can always revert to idleness later if it starts to bother me.
After all, ever notice that the people who preach about the dangers of overwork, who go on the circuit talking about the importance of sleep, mindfulness, meditation, etc– all seem to do it after some sort of breakdown-induced epiphany? Where are the folks who were just chill all along? Maybe they’re out there, but they’re so chill they never even show up on our public consciousness.
Anyway. So the point is I’d like to be more industrious at least for the next few years. I’d like to work really, really hard from 25 to 30. I’d like to work so hard from 25 to 30 that I might consider taking a couple of years off just to decompress. Maybe that’s a slightly ignorant time scale. Maybe I should be planning my time in days and weeks, or months and quarters. I’ve been a working adult for over 3 years now, and it’s already worn me down in some ways. I’m hoping to take a long-ish vacation next year. I want to just write write write write. I keep saying that but I haven’t even gotten to the end of this post yet, lol.
I spent some time thinking about it in the shower and I realize I think I need to do more prep-work. I think I had this romantic idea that I would be able to just keep doing this day after day without any planning and everything. Actually that’s not entirely true– what I assumed, and this is a correct assumption, I think– was that the challenge of this project would force me to figure out how to do it better. And if I want to write better everyday, a big part of that is going to be figuring out what I’m going to write before I write it.
So I guess before I write my next vomit, I’m going to outline the things that I’m potentially going to write about, and then write those things.
Life, particularly in modern civilization, is an absurd circus. We’re all clowns living in boxes trying to amuse ourselves in the face of inevitable death and meaninglessness.
What’s additionally absurd is that we go through a lot of trouble to avoid facing up to this fact. We avoid discussing it with children because we don’t want to scare or frighten them. We avoid discussing it with our families at the dinner table because it seems rude or impolite. 
Albert Camus wanted to discuss it. He wrote an essay titled The Myth Of Sisyphus, about a wise, prudent mortal condemned by the Gods to the most miserable of punishments — futile, hopeless, meaningless labor. He was cursed to roll a large stone up a hill, have it roll back down, and repeat the process for eternity.
Camus uses a lot of words to make a subtle point — “If this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious. Where would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him?”, and “The workman of today works everyday in his life at the same tasks, and his fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious.” I agree with all of that.
Camus then goes on to try to make the case that Sisyphus should be happy. And this is where I think it devolves into wishful thinking. “All Sisyphus’ silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him.” Really? It doesn’t quite persuade me. I think Camus was getting a bit romantic and prescriptive here. The essay ends with “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
In my earlier reads of the final quote, without the context of the rest of the essay, I misread Camus to be saying that Sisyphus MUST be happy. Only on later, closer reads do I realize he’s saying that WE should imagine Sisyphus happy, for the sake of our own emotional and psychological well-being. Existential Comics riffs off this idea amusingly by introducing gamification — Sisyphus enjoys his meaningless task once meaningless numbers and trinkets are added to the game. I think this captures how most humans deal with the meaninglessness of reality in practice , but I don’t think that’s exactly what Camus was trying to do. I think Camus was trying to explore a question that he supposedly raised elsewhere– should I kill myself or have a cup of coffee?.
If we go back to the Myth of Sisyphus essay– the honors, gamifications, epaulettes, all of that is distraction from consciousness of the fundamental absurdity of human existence. If Sisyphus enjoys the stickers and stats on his stone, as Existential Comics suggests he might, then he’s (probably) distracting himself from the absurdity of his situation. 
Here’s what I think: I think that happiness is too much to ask for. I think happiness is a by-product, it’s something that’s realized rather than pursued.  I think wanting to be happy all the time, trying to be happy all the time– I think that’s a sort of madness. It’s a very unfair, unrealistic expectation to have, and it guarantees dissatisfaction. A full, rich life would have all sorts of experiences and emotions associated with it. Sometimes we’re happy and sometimes we’re sad, and the sadness is every bit as important as the happiness.
If we’re perpetually sad all the time, we might want to ask why that is, and whether we’re okay with that. If we’re not okay with that, then we might want to do something about it– change the setting, change the frame.
I can’t remember who was it where I first encountered the idea– it might’ve been Elon Musk or some writer or otherwise ambitious or entrepreneurial person– someone who said that happiness is subtle, fleeting and difficult to pin down, and it’s much better to navigate by excitement. If you’re unhappy (maybe because you’re having a bad day, or a rough time, or you’re tired), but you’re excited about something, then you’re probably doing alright. If you’re happy, but you’re not excited about something, chances are your happiness will fade sooner or later. It’s more complex than that, of course, but the point is that if you have something to look forward to, then life becomes less of an ordeal.
Parallel to that, I’ve come to believe that the only enduring, sustainable response to absurdity is humor. To be reductive about it, either we laugh or we cry, isn’t it? Either it’s a tragedy or a comedy. And finding humor in something is incredibly powerful. If you can laugh after tremendous loss and suffering, after experiencing grave trauma and whatnot, then I believe that you’ll be okay. I mean, you’re going to DIE (sorry), and everything is ultimately meaningless, so you’ll eventually cease to BE at all. But if you can still laugh, then you’ve still got a chance to enjoy the life you have left– even if it’s painful, difficult, unfair, miserable and so on.
I’m not saying we should allow ourselves to be miserable, or that we shouldn’t work to correct injustice, or that this justifies suffering. We should reduce suffering wherever we can. But suffering is an unlimited, renewable resource, so there will always be more of it down the road. Like the man cursed by the Gods, we will always be suffering. One must imagine Sisyphus LOL-ing.
 A person could go through their entire life from cradle to grave without ever really thinking very much about how ridiculous life is, or how and why he does what he does, towards what end, for what purpose, in what greater context. Religions are convenient here, and remove a lot of the difficult thinking and grappling required.
 Steve Yegge wrote a great essay about gun collecting and token economies in Borderlands that applies here, and Richard Feynman spoke similarly about honors and epaulettes
 Caveat: It’s possible to simultaneously enjoy the game AND recognize that it’s only a game, ultimately illusory. Alan Watts talked a lot about that. A lot of people choose to do just one or the other– either throw yourself into the pleasures and riches and pursuits of material existence, or try to forsake and abandon all of it altogether through a life of asceticism. The latter can itself become a sort of attachment to an ideal– the pursuit of a spiritual goodie rather than a material goodie.
 And there are many parts to happiness– fulfillment, meaning, flow, pleasure. Each of those things have different variables that influence it.
Originally posted direct to Medium.
When I was a kid, I was stuck in a very silly cycle.
I’d get home from school every day and I’d avoid doing my homework for as long as possible. Why? I didn’t like homework, I guess. It seemed boring, tedious, unimportant. And I assumed I’d be able to do it really quick whenever I finally decided to do it.
I’d tell myself that I’d get it done before going to bed, and go on to watch anime, play video games, read books, etc. I spent all my time in the Dark Playground. Next thing I’d know it would be 1am, and I’d be really tired and sleepy with nothing done. I’d sit with my books for maybe 30 minutes to an hour, sometimes with a can of coffee or Red Bull. And I’d have the sinking feeling that I was somehow ‘mysteriously’ in a terrible, no-win situation.
Eventually (maybe around 2am), I’d get exhausted and try to bargain with myself. “I can’t work like this. Let’s sleep for a couple of hours, set an alarm for 4am, and get it done before school starts.” I’d almost always sleep through the alarm, or wake up groggy and decide that sleep is more important. Finally my mum would come into my room and wake me up to go for school. At this point I’d be panicking and anxious. I’d try to get my work done on the bus on the way to school, or I’d try to sneak off and do it somewhere. If I knew that the teacher was going to be especially mad at me, sometimes I’d convince myself I was sick. Sometimes I’d actually fall sick, and I’d feel sorry for myself for having to suffer so much.
The funny thing is, I never really questioned the assumption stated earlier.
I simply assumed that I’d be able to do my homework really quickly when I decided to. I systematically, consistently, repeatedly miscalculated how much time I would require to do the work. I never bothered to measure how much time it took me, and I’d get burnt over and over and over. And when I’d fail, it would never occur to me that my assumption might be wrong. It was like an optical illusion, a persistent bug in my mental software.
Why? It seems to me that it’s because it was easier and more comforting to maintain the illusion than to confront reality.
This weird habit has stuck with me my entire life so far. To this day I continue to overestimate how much I can do in a given time period, even when it’s now work that I recognize as important to me. I constantly assume that I’m somehow special, and that this time is different. The cycle of denial and bargaining is troublingly similar to the sort of patterns we see in alcoholics and drug addicts.
What exactly is going on here?
The Ray Dalio quote says it all: I was refusing to accept and deal with reality.(This is still a problem.)
Specifically, the reality of my own personal capacity and ability. It was somehow comforting or self-assuring to believe that I possessed some sort of superhuman capability, that one day I would wake up and be overcome with inspiration and completely decimate my todo list and take care of all my obligations all at once. (Hyperbole and a Half covers this quite well.)
The longer I live, and the more experience I accumulate, the more painfully obvious that this isn’t the case and will never be the case. I make fun of people who play the lottery, and yet inside my head I’m playing some kind of lottery too. I keep betting on vanishingly tiny odds that I’ll be able to do something I’ve never actually done before, and I keep getting burnt for it. I suffer from a sort of Gambler’s Fallacy– this dogged belief that somehow I am special, somehow I’m going to beat the odds, my day will come, yadda yadda.
So that’s the first trap. Believing in something that isn’t true, partially because it’s comforting, because it’s easy, and because it enables me to feed my addiction(s). It’s a lie that that the wily saboteur in my head tells myself.
Then there’s a second trap. After several failures in a row, and being confronted by the nasty outcomes of said failures– angry teachers, angry parents, stress, frustration, shame, etc– I often have a “moment of awareness”. A moment where I temporarily open my eyes and go “Wow, this is messed up.”
The correct thing to do would be to go, “I should do something to fix this,” and then execute the fix. But that’s hard, and boring, and painful.
The simpler, easier thing to do is to get fixated on my feelings. I feel bad. I feel guilty. I feel ashamed. I feel embarrassed. I resent myself. I beat myself up internally as some sort of penance for my sins. THIS IS A TRAP. It feels like there’s some sort of important emotional labor going on, but it actually achieves nothing. In fact, it actually distracts from the actions needed to be taken in order to rectify the problem.
Imagine an alcoholic crying and pleading with her loved ones, saying “I messed up, I’m so terrible, I’m so sorry,” and then getting drunk again afterwards because she feels so bad. That’s basically what happens.
Consider how, in the broader scheme of things, the intensity and seeming sincerity of the self-flagellation is actually far less relevant than the subsequent actions that the person takes. And yet somehow there’s often this strange impulse to focus on how big and important the feelings are.
Beating yourself up over your failures is every bit as egotistic as convincing yourself you’re amazing. This seems like an unpleasant thing to say, but I’ve found it to be true. And that’s not a coincidence– the more unpleasant the truth, the less likely anybody’s going to intervene, and now you’re trapped in this delightful ego bubble of Poor Little Me.
Let’s talk for a second about how people react to seeing a person like this. There are a few responses:
- Comfort them (“It’s okay, you’re okay…”)
- Confront them (“What is wrong with you?”)
- Ignore them (This depends on the relationship between the two people– easy if it’s an acquaintance, harder if you live or work together. Sometimes people slowly disengage and distance themselves over time.)
The ego likes all of these responses. When comforted, it feels good, and nothing gets done about the problem. When confronted, it gets defensive, and now we’re fighting about other things instead of addressing the problem. When ignored, it continues to fester in its filth.
The only real solution I’ve seen is a sort of enlightened, questioning engagement. (My boss is really good at this. He has a way of simply asking questions in a non-accusatory tone, which my ego has no idea how to deal with. He’d ask, “How come this didn’t get done when you said you’d do it?”, and my brain would think, “Because I’m a horrible person!” — which is the ego talking, again. But he’d ask it in such a neutral, curious tone that he’d get me curious too, and make me realize that I personally avoid identifying the real causes. Because the real causes are boring to behold and painful to deal with– it boils down to things like sleep, nutrition, keeping a schedule and sticking to it, all the little things that require effort that don’t immediately yield nice payoffs.)
The ego, or the saboteur, whatever you want to call it– is only interested in narrow, unenlightened self-preservation. It wants to maintain the status quo, and it will cry and whine and rage and scream to do it. There’s a parent/child dynamic at play here, whether internally inside the person’s head, or between the person and others. And the goal of the child is to get away from the “problem” or “pain” of being held accountable. It will do whatever it takes.
If you’ve ever witnessed children manipulating their parents in order to get ice-cream or fast food, you’ll know how horrifying it can be. It sometimes literally looks like the child is possessed by some sort of demon. Then think about how there’s a demon inside you too– it cooperates when you do what it wants, but otherwise it raises hell.
There’s a third trap beyond the first two layers. The one where you think you’ve finally got it. Where you recognize the first two traps, and you’re convinced that you’ve got it figured out, that it’s not going to get you anymore, so you don’t need to “police yourself”.  And so you happily, confidently write a blogpost about it and share it with the world, problem solved!
Nope, that’s another trap. Everything about the ego resists examination, introspection, accountability. This is such a reliable, predictable thing that you can practically navigate by it: Whenever you start to feel like you’ve “solved the problem”, realize that you’re being hoodwinked. Instead, develop a taste and appreciation for doing the work.
I’ve actually written many variants of this blogpost many times over the years. “I didn’t do well because I didn’t study” , “Killing the Saboteur” , “Searching under streetlights” . Evidently, my ego really enjoys doing this sort of thing. Time spent writing about a problem and outlining a problem is time spent not addressing the problem. Commiserating feels good, but it ends up feeding the ego too.
The only way out is to confront and accept reality. To navigate not by feelings (which are misleading and manipulative if you have a saboteur in your head like I do), but by evidence. For me, this means taking a good hard look at my calendar every day, keeping track of the work I’m doing, seeing what my output actually is, how much I can actually do. It means developing a taste for pain and discomfort. It means revisiting and reviewing how each day goes, so that I can make adjustments and learn from my mistakes and do better.
And it means ending this essay here, and getting my ass to work. 😛 I hope this is helpful to somebody.
 I’m not saying that you DO need to police yourself. That’s very loaded language, and it’s designed to fail the same way unsustainable diets are designed to fail. You need to discipline yourself, the way a musician or comedian is disciplined– they improvise on stage, but they put in decades of deliberate practice beforehand.
I’m losing a bit of steam here but I got to keep going while I can. A quick summary– I’ve been thinking about the context that I live in, and the history that has lead to this context, and how it shapes my thinking and my life. I’m reminded of David Foster Wallace’s joke at a commencement speech about an old fish greeting younger fish with “Good day boys, how’s the water?”, and then one fish says to the other, “What’s water?”
Water in my case is modern civilization– the physical spaces, the technologies, the ideologies, the media, everything. I’m also thinking now about Paul Graham’s essay What You Can’t Say, and how he talks about moral fashions, and how we inherit them, and how they can prevent us from thinking certain thoughts altogether.
I relate to PG– I want to be able to have freedom of thought. I want to be able to be free in every way that is afforded to me– or at least I say that because I think that will lead to a happier life for me, with more pleasure and more enjoyment and more fulfillment and all of those good things. I outlined that there are things about modern civilization that I love– and I don’t need to talk too much about those things because that part is easy to rant and rave about – and there are things that I hate. And the things that I hate are (to name a few) bureaucracy, unnecessary complexity and bullshit. And boredom, I suppose, though boredom is a luxury and a privilege compared to living in fear or worry. Let’s focus on the earlier bits.
I chose bureaucracy as an antonym for brutish– I was thinking of Hobbes’s phrase “brutish and short” as a descriptor of life in pre-civilization. I was trying to figure out the inverse of that– long, obviously, but what’s the inverse of brutish? I came up with “bureaucratic”– and I was delighted to find out that the word’s etymology is rooted in “desk”. And that sums up a lot of the transition, I think. We’ve gone from being wild to being desk-bound. We’ve gone from playing in the streets to playing in santized playgrounds, staring at iPads all day and whatnot. I don’t think of myself as an iPad hater, I love technological tools. I love my Macbook and my Android phone, and I’d quite like an iPad too though i can’t quite justify the expenditure right now. But the point I think is that we’ve gone from living primarily in our bodies to living primarily in our heads (Ken Robinson has a great riff on this, re: how our education systems have been modelled after the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment and so on– that math is somehow definitely more important than dance, for example.)
I’m not going to say that dance is more important than math, but dance is important. Diet is important. Exercise is important. Flirting is important. Movement is important. Hiking is important. We seem to have, in our eagerness to evolve or progress in some way, thrown out a bunch of things about ourselves that made us who we are.
Okay I’m being a bit vague and grand here, I should be more precise. What am I trying to say here… we cut out a lot of things from our lives in an attempt to make things more tidy, more organized, more legible, easier to account for, easier to measure and so on. Standardized tests. Standardized everything. Again I probably don’t fully appreciate how powerful and empowering standardization must’ve been for a lot of people. It would’ve brought them out of poverty, given them dignity, so on and so forth. I’m writing all of this under the blanket of security and wealth provided by all the sacrifices that people made before me, and for this I am grateful. But I still want to understand how exactly we got to byzantine, bureaucratic bullshit-ville, so that I can navigate it better. My main way of dealing with BBB is to be angry, or sarcastic, or absurd, to call it out, to complain about it, to laugh at it, to find other people that I can laugh at it with. But it doesn’t make the problem go away. BBB stucks around after I’ve made fun of it. So I need to change my approach if I want to have less of it in my life.
Some tentative thoughts. Cutting through bullshit requires knowing what the truth is. The truth is often obfuscated in civilization– sometimes because truth is expensive and tedious and people don’t want to bother putting in the effort when they don’t have to, and sometimes because somebody or some group of people don’t really want the truth because it’s awkward, painful, uncomfortable and so on. The latter can seem like a conspiracy theory but that doesn’t necessarily make it invalid. I recall reading a quote from someone in power who said that the drug war was knowingly perpetuated so that the “wrong” sort of people could be smeared on dinnertime television night after night for years. That makes total sense to me.
But I’m not doing this to take BS-artists to court. (Courts and legal systems are incredibly byzantine and full of BS too, allowing all sorts of wiggle room and interpretations– so much of it is theater, blah blah…). I’m doing this so I can come to a place of acceptance about my place in the BBB circus, and figure out steps for myself to climb out of it, to dust myself off and at least carve out a space that I can inhabit comfortably and not feel like blowing my brains out or otherwise committing acts of indecency. Or being lulled into a sense of helplessness and apathy, which is equally bad, I think. Sometimes I shake myself up a little in a silly way because I think that would be preferable to getting jaded.